Review: Twelfth Night, Southbank Theatre

MTC’s take on Shakespeare’s tale of desire, love and disguise has a stellar cast but is worth going to for the music alone.
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Esther Hannaford and Roderick Cairns in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Photo by Jeff Busby.

An extravaganza of intricate detailing and crowd pleasing bells and whistles, MTC’s take on Shakespeare’s tale of desire, love and disguise has a stellar cast and is worth going to for the music alone.

After an initial dark and misty funereal opening whereby sombre singing, voluminous cloaks and those giant stiff lace collars signal that director Simon Phillips has set the play in its original period, the play lightens up and takes advantage of the theatrical and overblown opportunities afforded by Shakespeare’s happy comedy.  

Designer Gabriela Tylesova created opulent Elizabethan flounce and New Romantic frill in costumes that spare no expense, and contrasts these with a minimalist approach to set design with a few well-placed mechanical pop-ups and floating props. Her concept reaches it’s apex in Orsino who descends from the heavens on a chaise lounge, mid-swoon and bathed in heavenly light, wearing tight gold leather pants, white boots and a pearl and gold jacket. Lachlan Woods who plays the duke is part Liberace, part Adam Ant and his slightly androgynous pop star persona works well for the gender bending antics in later scenes.  

Alec Steedman, Roderick Cairns, Anthony Harkin and Esther Hannaford in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The shipwrecked Viola is played by Esther Hannaford whose separation from her beloved twin brother Sebastian sets the play into motion. Her performance is layered with moments of heartfelt innocence peering out at the crowd who are in on her contrived performance of masculinity as Cesario.  

Comic gold abounds in the form of theatre veteran Richard Piper who infuses the lush Toby Belch with a rock ‘n’ roll hedonism and slapstick extraordinaire Frank Woodley as Sir Andrew Aguecheek who has the audience howling during some fantastically choreographed drunken follies. Christie Whelan Browne plays a ditzy Olivia, who unwittingly falls in love with Viola dressed as a man. Browne plays the role with a flustered, girlish eagerness and skilful comic timing.

Russell Dykstra as Malvolio was suitably prudish in the beginning and ridiculous when donning the yellow stockings later as a witty Tamsin Carroll playing the maid Maria conspires to make a fool of him.  

(Above) Lachlan Woods, Christie Whelan Browne, Russell Dykstra, and Colin Hay in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The music in the play is a standout, with Australian music icon Colin Hay of Men at Work making his MTC debut as Feste. Hay’s voice was in fine form on opening night and his own troubadour style of performance is a perfect fit for the play’s band leader. He is ably backed throughout by the cast and court musicians, performing the work of composers Kate Miller-Heidke, Keir Nuttall who have set Shakespeare’s songs to timeless, folk inspired music.

This production is a worthy festive season romp delivered by consummate professionals so that the audience can just sit back and enjoy the show knowing they are in good hands.  

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare 
directed by Simon Phillips
Melbourne Theatre Company
12 November 2018-5 January 2019
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner

Sama Hugo-Giali
About the Author
Sama Hugo-Giali is a Melbourne based arts writer. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Cinema Studies from the University of Sydney and a Masters in Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.